LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - The choice facing French voters has become clear after the first round of the country’s presidential elections on Sunday. The pro-European reformer Emmanuel Macron will face the far-right protectionist Marine Le Pen in a runoff on May 7, projections showed. The independent centrist Macron is the clear favourite – a relief for investors who feared the rise of anti-EU candidates. His chances of victory are, however, better than his ability to deliver on promises of change.
The scale of Macron’s achievement is hard to overstate. Just a year after setting up his En Marche! movement the 39-year old has ended six decades of domination by France’s two mainstream political parties, whose candidates both immediately gave him their endorsement. Yet he remains a more conventional choice than Le Pen and the hard-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose support had surged in recent weeks. That helps explain the 2 percent rise in the euro against the dollar as markets began to open in Asia.
Yet winning the presidency may turn out to be the easy part for the former Rothschild banker. French voters might be more apt to vote for a reformer than to embrace the changes he espouses. Policies that Macron championed as economy minister in President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government were watered down following union opposition and demonstrations. He even faced resistance from within the ruling party.
Macron’s movement lacks the party machinery that will be essential to winning France’s legislative election in June. Barring another political earthquake, he is therefore likely to be dependent on one of the main political parties to implement policies that include reducing headcount in the public sector and negotiating at company level the number of hours that employees work.
Granted, the reformist wing of the France’s Socialist party could back his plans. And the centre-right Les Republicains may be more favourably disposed to such changes. But neither party will have much incentive to expend political capital in passing reforms that irk some voters on behalf of an unaffiliated president. Macron will face his real challenge if he clinches the presidency in two weeks’ time.